By Krystal Craiker –
Please don’t assume I’m a Christian, because I’m not. I was once, so there’s no need to educate me on your religion. What do I believe? Well, I believe in many things.
I believe in science and history. I believe in looking at all sides of the story. I believe we are all connected because we are all made of the same recycled star stuff. I believe I am here to make this world a better place; I believe we all are. I believe in teaching my students to think critically and question everything. I believe in education.
Teaching in the U.S. South is a unique challenge for the atheist. In the South, high school football teams pray before games, and before-school Bible studies are commonplace. In the South, a principal will stand in front of her staff and say her job is her ministry. In the South, a school official will tell a struggling student that mental health issues just need Jesus.
I love my colleagues. My school has an exceptional staff with some of the most caring people I have ever met. We go above and beyond for our students. But being a non-Christian, especially one who identifies most closely with atheism, is exhausting. It is exhausting having to bite my tongue when teachers want to pray and having to constantly smile and nod to avoid proselytizing. It is exhausting being in the atheist closet.
High school students have a fascination with their teachers’ personal beliefs, both religious and political. They are trying to figure out their own beliefs and have realized there are more opinions than those of their parents. Teachers all over the Bible Belt will tell their students about their religion. I will not. Because they are so impressionable, I tell them my beliefs are irrelevant to my ability to teach. What matters are their own beliefs and opinions, as long as they have the ability to support it.
I am in the minority in this approach.
I will never forget the first time I posted an opinion question in my United States History class. Even though I had prefaced it with “Opinion Question,” over half the class searched for the answer on Google. I have to train my students to have opinions. I repeatedly say, “There is no right or wrong answer, as long as you can support it.” By December, they stop asking what the right answer is. By May, they are just getting comfortable enough to fully defend their viewpoints.
Last year, one of my favorite students mentioned he would not go to graduation because it is held at a church. His atheism was completely baffling to other students. I slipped him a note that said, “I don’t believe in God either.” I wanted him to know he wasn’t alone, because often I feel alone. When another student was asked if she is “Catholic or Christian” (what?), she replied, “Neither, but I just checked out some books on paganism.”
Her supposed friends said they would be staying away from her.
I told a coworker recently that I do not believe in God. I have taught with this woman for three years. We are friends. She admits that she herself only goes to church twice a year. But the shock and judgment in her voice was unmistakable. I am still the teacher who loves my students. I am still kind to everyone I meet, still spend a good chunk of my free time doing volunteer work. But my disbelief changed her viewpoint of me, at least for awhile.
Being a non-Christian in this environment is uncomfortable. Work friends have thanked me for prayers that I never gave. I wish I could tell them that the moment I stopped waffling between agnosticism and atheism, I was sitting right next to them at the wake of a 17-year-old student. Coworkers had already told me that God has a plan and moves in mysterious ways. Sitting between praying colleagues and sobbing students, hearing the screaming prayers of the boy’s family, I realized beyond a shadow of a doubt that I no longer believed in their god. My student died because of choices and chance. It seemed irrational and uncomforting to believe his death was part of a divine plan.
I will continue getting prayer requests through my work email and in faculty meetings. I will continue to be uncomfortable about the weekly Bible study before school. However, I am working on not staying silent when asked about my beliefs. Maybe I can change their minds about who an atheist is. I will continue to offer my time and resources instead of prayers for my colleagues in need.
And for a time, at least, I will continue teaching in the South.
Image via Shutterstock
Krystal Craiker is a freelance writer-for-hire with a background in anthropology and education. Her interests include education, feminism, travel, board games, and volunteer work. She has been writing in various genres since the time she could construct sentences. Krystal lives in Texas with her fiancé, two dogs, and twelve pet rats.